Eating to Fight Depression

It is widely accepted that there is a direct relationship between food and emotions and your daily diet can influence your mood. Increasingly scientists think that diet can play a small but important role in depression and it’s treatment.
Diet may not cure depression, and signs of major depression should be taken seriously and a doctor consulted. But some foods can be useful in conjunction with certain prescribed therapies. Dietary changes prove most helpful to those with mild to moderate depression.

Vitamin and mineral deficiencies

One of the key mood-related nutrients is folate. Depression is a common symptom of folate deficiency and many patients experiencing depressive behaviour have been found to be folate deficient. Increasing the consumption of folate rich foods or taking a folic acid supplement can alter, and in some cases, completely eliminate mood swings and depressive behaviour.

Selenium has also shown a marked effect in lifting depression. Consumption of this mineral has progressively fallen in the UK since the start of the 1990 when the import of high selenium wheat from North America was reduced. Trials with selenium supplements have been shown to lift depression, and decrease tiredness and anxiety.

Beneficial foods:

Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, beetroot, asparagus, spinach, kale, and black-eyed beans are all rich sources of folate. Low levels of folate have been linked to a poor response to antidepressant drugs, such as serotonin inhibitors.

Breakfast cereals, bread, and yeast extracts that are fortified with folic acid help to increase blood levels of this vitamin.

Rich dietary sources of selenium include Brazil nuts, kidney, liver and shellfish.
The serotonin theory
There is some evidence to support the various claims that the balance of protein and carbohydrate consumed in a meal can affect the production and activity of the brain neurotransmitter serotonin that is known to improve mood. Some foods can help to increase the amount of serotonin in the brain and help to control weight gain that sometimes accompanies depression.

Beneficial foods:

Lean meats and low fat milk are good suppliers of vitamin B6, needed for converting the amino acid known as tryptophan into the neurotransmitter serotonin. In some tests, depressed people have been found to have lower levels of vitamin B6 than those who are not depressed.

Turkey, pheasant, and cottage cheese are particularly good sources of tryptophan. Lean meat, fish, eggs, low-fat dairy products, and pulses also supply tryptophan.

Avocados, dates, bananas, plums, aubergines, papayas, passion fruits, plantains, pineapples, and tomatoes contain a natural supply of pre-formed serotonin. This serotonin attaches itself to receptor sites in the stomach, which sends signals to the brain to suppress appetite.

Mood swings and blood sugar levels

Low blood sugar levels have been linked with feelings of tiredness and depressed mood. A sugar fix can make you feel great initially when blood sugar levels run high, but leave you feeling low again once they fall. It is better to regulate blood sugar levels by eating carbohydrate foods that are slowly absorbed. These types of foods have a low GI (glycaemic index).

Beneficial foods:

Porridge, unsweetened muesli, and bran flake cereals all have a low glycaemic index so they release sugar into the bloodstream slowly. This steady supply of blood sugar to the brain helps to raise serotonin levels for sustained periods helping to relieve mild depression.

Basmati rice, rye bread and pulses have low GIs preventing the big highs and subsequent dips in blood sugar levels which can also lead to weight gain.

Foods to avoid:

Sugar, honey, sweets, biscuits, cakes and sweet drinks cause sudden increases in blood sugar levels, which are often followed by ‘sugar lows’. These foods may accentuate feeling of despondency, and should be eaten in moderation by those who have depression.

Avoid croissants, crumpets, bagels, white bread, cornflakes, and sugar-coated cereals, all of which bring about a rapid release of sugar into the blood. These foods are best replaced with slow-releasing options.


Stuck in a bad mood you can’t shift? What you need is a sudden blast of endorphins, the body’s natural pain killers. These substances are released in the brain when we’re experiencing pleasure and provide a blissful feeling that can last for hours. Cardiovascular exercise is the best way to get the longest endorphin fix. It takes 20-30 minutes of hard aerobic exercise for endorphin release – but once they’re up and running the effects cause a mood and energy spurt for 2-3 hours and a mild buzz for the rest of the day.

Beneficial foods:

Chilli peppers contain substances called capsaicinoids, which when eaten are released causing pain in the mouth. When this kicks in the brain thinks the mouth is being burned. This causes a flood of endorphins to be sent to the site of the pain in just seconds, bringing with it a mood boost that lasts for about an hour. This endorphin rush is believed to be why so many people crave spicy foods.

The ultimate feel-good food chocolate is known to cause the release of endorphins. This could be due to the fact that from an early age chocolate is seen as a treat, a reward for good behaviour or a symbol of love and affection. This feel-good association is remembered by the body every time we even anticipate eating chocolate. Other comfort foods can have a similar effect, mashed potato, ice cream and baked beans are typical foods of childhood and can offer a big endorphin rush when eaten (or just sniffed) by adults.

Other measures:

Oats, known for their antidepressant actions are rich in saponins, alkaloids, B vitamins, and flavanoids. Eaten in the form of porridge, oats are a useful remedy for those with low moods.

Basil leaves added to salads have long been prescribed by herbalists for their antidepressant actions. Active constituents of this herb include certain volatile oils and basil camphor.

Cottage cheese, turkey, chicken, very lean meats and low fat dairy products are protein foods with low calorie and fat content. Protein foods can help to reduce hunger and the tendency to overeat.

Butter, margarine, lard and fried and fatty foods should be avoided as they can cause weight gain and lead to depression.